A columnist in Monday's London Financial Times called former Prime Minister Tony Blair's testimony before the Chilcot inquiry on the Iraq war (which has received very little attention in U.S. media) "an exercise in self-justification, indeed self-righteousness." -- Max Hastings, one of the paper's contributing editors, wondered whether the inquiry served any real purpose, since no "national leader can afford to apologize for mistakes of the highest importance." -- But at least the inquiry did demonstrate "how far British governance has become presidential rather than parliamentary," Hastings said, even more than in the U.S.: "A British national leader today possesses greater power over his own polity than does a U.S. president over his." -- As for policy, however, British sovereignty has become notional. -- "Every British defense review and government strategy paper assumes we cannot take unilateral military action without U.S. backing. Implicit is the fear that, should we flinch from supporting their cherished purposes, we shall forfeit theirs for our own. The inadequacy of European security policies, the refusal of E.U. partners to address defense in a credible fashion, reinforces such sentiment. If we are not with the Americans and they are not with us, goes the argument, we shall end up adrift in strategic limbo." ...
LESSONS FROM CHILCOT ON THE ATLANTIC ALLIANCE
By Max Hastings
Financial Times (London)
January 31, 2010
Tony Blair’s appearance on Friday before the Chilcot inquiry on the Iraq war conformed to expectations. It was an exercise in self-justification, indeed self-righteousness, at one with everything the former U.K. prime minister has said since 2003. It may be argued that no national leader can afford to apologise for mistakes of the highest importance. To do so would be to surrender to the vultures the carcass of his reputation.
I am among those sceptical about the merits of holding an Iraq inquest. Britain was the junior partner in a U.S. adventure. No prominent American participants will testify, no Washington documentary evidence is available. The report of Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues will describe a train crash from the perspective of passengers. They can explain the process by which tickets were bought, the coach boarded. But the driver’s absence from the witness box seems an insurmountable impediment to reaching important conclusions.
Furthermore, the important realities have been plain for years. George W. Bush, former U.S. president, and Mr. Blair shared a moral and strategic enthusiasm for removing Saddam Hussein. They sincerely believed he possessed weapons of mass destruction. They took the risk of making these their casus belli because by no other means could they secure domestic political endorsements for military action. When the WMD case proved false and Iraq lapsed into bloody chaos, they were left naked before the court of public opinion and posterity.
The most important contribution of the Chilcot proceedings thus far is to emphasize how far British governance has become presidential rather than parliamentary. A host of witnesses -- diplomats, civil servants, generals, and ministers -- have exposed their reservations about, even passionate objections to, the 2003 Iraq invasion. Britain went ahead anyway because one man, Mr. Blair, was committed. Nobody was strong or brave enough to stop him. If all those who assert their opposition had declared it publicly at the time, or merely resigned in silence, Mr. Blair could probably not have secured a parliamentary majority for war. But, with the exception of one middle-ranking Foreign Office lawyer and two leftwing ministers, the sceptics and dissenters voiced private misgivings then acquiesced.
It is an interesting question whether the Iraq experience means such Whitehall docility will be unforthcoming in a future international crisis. My own guess is that, once raw memories of this disaster fade, deference to the prime minister’s authority will remain the norm. A British national leader today possesses greater power over his own polity than does a U.S. president over his.
Perhaps the most interesting and profitable field for investigation and speculation by Chilcot is that of Britain’s role in the Atlantic alliance. The memory is burnt on my brain of a moment in late 2002 when I heard one of the U.K.’s most prominent strategists express intense unhappiness about the Iraq commitment, then conclude with a sigh: “But if the Americans are determined to do this, we shall have to go with them.” His view was that Britain’s military linkage with the U.S. was so fundamental to our foreign policy that we must fight willy-nilly. I believe this conviction, etched in the mindset of officials, diplomats, and commanders since 1945, was the decisive influence on events.
Every British defense review and government strategy paper assumes we cannot take unilateral military action without U.S. backing. Implicit is the fear that, should we flinch from supporting their cherished purposes, we shall forfeit theirs for our own. The inadequacy of European security policies, the refusal of E.U. partners to address defense in a credible fashion, reinforces such sentiment. If we are not with the Americans and they are not with us, goes the argument, we shall end up adrift in strategic limbo.
It is hard to overstate the embarrassments, frustrations, and humiliations to which this makes Britain vulnerable. I remember a British diplomat in Basra remarking wryly back in 2004: “The French are deeply uncomfortable about their breach with Washington over Iraq. But they prefer their level of discomfort to ours.”
In Afghanistan, the absence of a credible political strategy to match Mr. Obama’s troop surge provokes acute concern in London. But ministers know they are at Washington’s mercy about this. The only certainty in British minds is that British troops cannot quit Afghanistan before the Americans are ready to do so, without risking a perceived disastrous breach.
However disturbed is British public opinion about both Iraqi history and current events in Afghanistan, unity persists between the two major political parties about the priority of the U.S. relationship over all other considerations. The British often languish in their Washingtonian captivity. But they prefer it to the uncertainties of a lonely freedom in a dangerous world.
--The writer is an FT contributing editor.